"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." - Jawaharlal Nehru

Friday, May 27, 2011

I survived the three month challenge!

Salaamaleekum! Let me start out by saying (again) that if you want more insight to specific cultural issues like gender roles, city life, other ethnic groups outside of the one I always talk about (Wolof), rituals, customs and norms of The Gambia, etc… consort the list on the left of my co-volunteers blogs!  I have taken time to read them, and they are VERY enjoyable to read because they each have a different experience here in The Gambia.  We are placed all throughout the country, in different tribes, learning different languages, some as health volunteers, others as environment volunteers.  PLEASE TAKE TIME TO BROWSE THEIR BLOGS.  They’re funny, insightful, and give a wide-perspective to this country.
So yes it’s been a while, but I have not forgotten about you all!  I have been up-country at my village for the “three month challenge” in Bati Njol.   For the most part, I have done exactly what the Peace Corps told me to do, which is… nothing too productive.  In my last post, I told you that our expectation for Peace Corp’s three month challenge was to sit, watch, learn the language and culture, and get to know all the people in the village.  In order to be successful here, you must assimilate and gain the respect of those you are trying to help.  That is exactly what I’ve done…
                My past three months have consisted of the following:
1.       pounding cere (cous) with my sisters and learning how to cook Gambian dishes (and reaping the benefits of both in my tummy)
2.       chatting, joking, and greeting my village in Wolof – studying language
3.       taking time to explore the bush surrounding my village, including bits of Senegal
4.       Yoga and meditation, writing in my journal, reading a book by Paramahansa Yogananda – my spiritual teacher, going on long walks just to think, relax and reflect, and climbing trees
5.       Visiting the two girls I am most close to, Emily and Meghan, meeting their villages and dancing Fula/Mandinka style!
6.       Thinking A LOT about my friends, family, and Geoff back home.. I get super lonely here.
The only “productive” thing I’ve been doing in terms of Peace Corps WORK is below:
7.       A village situation analysis (VSA).  This is basically a door-to-door interview with everyone in my village [[ the important men and women (village leader, religious leader, chairperson, etc), men & women, old & young… everyone!  ]]. We have been asked to conduct this survey to effectively analyze the needs of the community we have been placed in.
At first, I was like “ughhh I am not in college again,” but as I began to formulate the questions I thought would be needed for this assignment, translate them, and build up enough courage to actually start the challenge, it turned out to be fun and extremely helpful.  What I thought the village needed, based on my own observations were confirmed.  However, there were also a lot of things I could not figure out on my own.  This VSA allowed me to not only practice my language, but gave me motivation everyday to be PROACTIVE in figuring out what the people actually need here and not just assume their needs based on my own perceptions. 
The questionnaire consisted of questions about family and village structure/organization, environmental and agricultural difficulties, health difficulties, and a few other subjects.  So the way I did it was to catch people in their comfort zones, where they would be most likely to speak REAL to me and not just tell me what I wanted them to say.  Some women, especially the ones I have become closest to, really opened up to me about issues that usually aren’t talked about – they showed passion in their words and expressions.  Here are the results of my VSA..
Health & Environment/Agricultural needs (in no particular order)
1.       Access to healthcare: Bati Njol has a Child and Reproductive Health (RCH) clinic that is available two days out of the month.  During these clinics, women come with their children under 5yrs, to be weighed and given immunizations.  The women are given very little instruction or information as to the significance of the weight and immunizations; they know that coming to the clinic is the right thing to do and they even love getting dressed up for it, but there is little education involved with these clinics.

Outside of these clinics, if there is little-to-no extra money in the family budget,then there is no means of medical advice or care available for the people of my village.  What I mean is, there is no ambulances, hospitals nearby, doctors or nurses… there is the power of JuJu’s (talismans to ward off evil spirits), teas made from herbs and trees in the bush, and the healing power of Allah. So, when these methods of maintaining wellness don’t necessarily do the trick, there is little help when it comes to access of healthcare.

What I found out through the VSA is that the lack of access to medicine, medical attention/advice, or a permanent and nearby clinic, is the BIGGEST health problem.  Okay so… solutions.  There is a half built clinic just outside the village.  What I have found out is the Vice President of The Gambia has promised one permanent medical staff (probably a nurse) to be placed in the clinic if the clinic is finished being built.  So when was this clinic started? It was started over 5 years ago.  I really believe a lot of the issues with lack of a reliable healthcare system in my village could be fixed if we could find a way to finish this building.  This is a HUGE task, and will probably take the entire two years to figure out and solve, but I believe that I can brainstorm with the people in my village to make this really work.  MORE TO COME in the next blog on this one...it’s a toughie!

2.       Environmental Sanitation:  trash.is.everywhere. seriously!  It’s not like The Gambia has curbside trash and recyclables pick-up every Sunday.  Even though there is WAYYY less waste produced in this country, the waste that is here is not managed… at all.  This includes human waste, trash, water waste… everything.  Okay so maybe I am just upset that it has been this way for centuries, but come on people – it has got to be obvious that it affects the health of everyone living in/around the filth and probably those living downstream and downwind as well… The rains are coming next month, and I am seriously concerned about this issue.  So, instead of people having designated areas to throw trash, things are either thrown on the ground right where the culprit is standing, in a huge heap right in the middle of the village, or in an even larger heap right outside the village. 

I know I mentioned this in the last blog, but I found out through the VSA that many elders and important people (elders, heads of village, etc) also think this is a huge issue.  I know, I know, we are all thinking THEN WHY HASN’T ANYTHING BEEN DONE??  There is a huge lack of structure/ organization in these small Gambian communities.  There may be “committees” for things, but really these are people that meet maaaaybe once every few months, sit around and drink green tea, greet each other, but maybe nothing will even be discussed in this meeting about any issues.  Something has got to be done… and it will..WHILE I’M HERE, DARNIT!!
www.ihatetrash.com (don’t know if that’s really a site, but it’s a website in my heart) haha.

3.       No Market, No Community Garden, say whaaat? Every morning, after my routine cup of coffee, oatmeal and a dose of meditation, I strut on down to the market where the women sell their vegetables.  Each woman is usually sitting in the dirt, with assorted vegetables layed out on a blanket.  If she is lucky, she has a tiny table about a foot off the ground and an old tin can to sit on.  You get it.. there’s no market.  Through my VSA, I found out that when the rains come, there is no place for the women to sell their vegetables, so they cram under any rain-shelter available, which may just be a tree, and do the best they can to sell their goods. 

In conjunction with the lack of market, the only farming done in my village is during the rainy season.  Mostly, the women who have enough money for a donkey cart, trek to the next village that has a market to buy vegetables in bulk.  Then, they trek back to Bati and sell the vegetables for maybe a Dalasis or two more than what they bought them for (which is equivalent to like.. a few cents).  During the rainy season, they have enough water to farm the vegetables needed to live and maybe a little extra to sell for next to no profit.  In the dry season, there is not enough pressure to the pumps in the garden to sustain a large-scale community garden.

We already have a fenced in area right behind my compound, about a hectare, that has pumps installed throughout the land.  However, there is not enough pressure to pull the water up from the borehole to water anything, so right now it is just an overgrown area that occasionally has a brush fire.  Everyone has expressed that if there were a reliable water source, they would help to prepare the land, maintain the garden, and harvest all the vegetables.  This would enhance the nutrition of the entire village, putting at least a few veggies in every food bowl.  The extra veggies could be sold to raise enough money (over a few years) to build the market!!
Other issues that were thrown out by the community are listed below.  Although I think they are extremely important, and maybe I will be able to create a few side projects, these are the things that I do not consider to be “major projects” that I want to put 100% effort into, just because I don’t want to spread myself too thin.
** birth control and family planning (40% of the country is under 14), more farming equipment and animals for agricultural production, more materials for the Al Quran school, small business enterprise (such as the selling of fabrics, soap, crochet, etc), control of livestock in dry season – cows, goats, sheep, chickens and donkeys just roam around all day, pooping on everything while the kids play “lets beat this animal with a stick” .. not my favorite game to watch.

Most of the time, the first reaction of the adults when you say “what are the major health and environmental issues in Bati” they say “THERE IS NO MONEY!”.. .so, then I have to explain that I am placed here as a Peace Corps volunteer to implement programs and ideas into the minds of village members, so they can work with me to make sustainable solutions to the problems they are facing, not to hand out thousands of Dalasis (currency) to them so they can spend it all at one time.  Here lies the problem, the implementation of programs usually, in my experience, needs money to provide materials for the production of goods, thus creating profit.  A tractor would increase agricultural production ten-fold… but where is a tractor going to come from? MONEY.  A garden would provide proper nutrition and income for the entire village to construct a market and have more income.  Where does the irrigation system come from for the garden to sustain in the dry season? MONEY.  The world revolves around money, in terms of material production and sustainability of physical life.  It’s a fact that I do not have any as a Peace Corps volunteer.  So how can I even make a difference?
Time for in-service to roll around, so I can get my knowledge on.  I need access to materials and money to help these people out.  I can unite and motivate the people, but in the end, all production will be rooted in the need for financing and outside aid, because I damn sure do not have any Dalasis to spare.

So.. I’m done blogging for now. Sorry if it was a downer and all with a list of “THINGS THAT ARE WRONG”.  And here I just told Geoff, I have GOT to make these posts more saucey, but in reality, my blogs are my exact thoughts and feelings of my Peace Corps experience here in the Gambia.  I could write more about things I do throughout the day (or don’t), about gender roles and issues, the religion and culture of this country, etc.. but in the end, I want you all to be involved in this whole planning process for the work I want to do here. Last blog, you all sent in ideas and brainstormed with me on the things I was interested in.  This process and experience can only happen slowly, slowly.  So, THANK YOU.

Peace and Love.

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